Spooky, inventive, funny, maybe a tad didactic or cloying here and there, Winterson’s mixed bag of fictional treats has a...

CHRISTMAS DAYS

12 STORIES AND 12 FEASTS FOR 12 DAYS

Ghosts, fairies, self-revelation, and friendly seasonal recipes give this collection a potentially wide-ranging appeal for readers as well as gift shoppers.

Winterson (The Gap of Time, 2015, etc.), the versatile British writer, has gathered 12 Yule-themed stories in a book laced with bits of autobiography both in the introduction—a handy guide to the history of Christmas—and in the dishes she describes after each tale. She is especially good with the supernatural, using eerie and magical elements in ways that hark back to Poe and Dickens. In “Spirit of Christmas,” a child trapped in “BUYBUYBABY, the world’s biggest department store,” helps a couple shed their materialism. “Christmas in New York” has an O. Henry feel as its hero discovers the explanations behind the magic that cures his misanthropy. Apparitions, strange noises, a madman, a kitchen knife, and a Stephen King–ish turn near the end—all these make “Dark Christmas” very dark indeed. “The Snowmama” brings some entertaining playfulness and silly puns (soul becomes Snowl) to the living-snowman idea. “The Silver Frog,” with suggestions of Oliver Twist and Roald Dahl’s Matilda, arranges a plague of magic silver frogs to deal with the meanie heading an orphanage. The story stands in counterpoint to the author’s laconic “I am adopted and it didn’t go well.” Winterson’s prose is often witty and sometimes lyrical, as in this description of Bethlehem before the first Christmas in the quite wonderful “The Lion, the Unicorn and Me”: “a musty, rusty, fusty pudding of a town…its people cussed and blustering.” The recipes seem doable and appetizing and come with intriguing glimpses of the writer, her friends, and their Christmas rituals.

Spooky, inventive, funny, maybe a tad didactic or cloying here and there, Winterson’s mixed bag of fictional treats has a 19th-century charm much needed in the grim 21st.

Pub Date: Dec. 6, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8021-2583-5

Page Count: 305

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: Oct. 19, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2016

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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

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Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

A PERMANENT MEMBER OF THE FAMILY

One of America’s great novelists (Lost Memory of Skin, 2011, etc.) also writes excellent stories, as his sixth collection reminds readers.

Don’t expect atmospheric mood poems or avant-garde stylistic games in these dozen tales. Banks is a traditionalist, interested in narrative and character development; his simple, flexible prose doesn’t call attention to itself as it serves those aims. The intricate, not necessarily permanent bonds of family are a central concern. The bleak, stoic “Former Marine” depicts an aging father driven to extremes because he’s too proud to admit to his adult sons that he can no longer take care of himself. In the heartbreaking title story, the death of a beloved dog signals the final rupture in a family already rent by divorce. Fraught marriages in all their variety are unsparingly scrutinized in “Christmas Party,” Big Dog” and “The Outer Banks." But as the collection moves along, interactions with strangers begin to occupy center stage. The protagonist of “The Invisible Parrot” transcends the anxieties of his hard-pressed life through an impromptu act of generosity to a junkie. A man waiting in an airport bar is the uneasy recipient of confidences about “Searching for Veronica” from a woman whose truthfulness and motives he begins to suspect, until he flees since “the only safe response is to quarantine yourself.” Lurking menace that erupts into violence features in many Banks novels, and here, it provides jarring climaxes to two otherwise solid stories, “Blue” and “The Green Door.” Yet Banks quietly conveys compassion for even the darkest of his characters. Many of them (like their author) are older, at a point in life where options narrow and the future is uncomfortably close at hand—which is why widowed Isabel’s fearless shucking of her confining past is so exhilarating in “SnowBirds,” albeit counterbalanced by her friend Jane’s bleak acceptance of her own limited prospects.

Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-185765-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Sept. 1, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

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